Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Desocupado Lector. Cervantes, Poetry, and the Idle Reader

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Desocupado Lector. Cervantes, Poetry, and the Idle Reader

Article excerpt

THE FOLLOWING SCRIPT IS a celebration of the poetry of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), as found in his narrative and dramatic works. The narrative commentary is by Edward Friedman, the poetry by Don Miguel. The original performance was a one-man show that featured a bilingual professional actor. The second performance was by nine graduate students in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University. The version here is that of the first performance. (1)

Good evening. My name is--.

I'm an actor, and I'm going to be reading poetry by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, known to you as the author of Don Quixote. Cervantes was also a poet and a playwright, though not necessarily successful at these literary ventures. I will be playing the narrator and all the poetic speakers created by Cervantes, so in our time together I'll be playing many roles. Let the curtain go up for "Desocupado lector."

The author of the world's most renowned novel was a student, a soldier, a captive, a frustrated playwright, and quite possibly a criminal. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in 1547 in the Spanish university town of Alcala de Henares, some twenty miles northeast of Madrid. He was the son of an itinerant physician, and he lived for a time in southern Spain. He was educated, but it is not known precisely where and with whom he studied. He journeyed to Italy, where he served a cardinal of the Church and enlisted in the military. He fought gallantly in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he was gravely wounded, losing the use of his left arm. In 1575, Cervantes, armed with letters of recommendation, headed back to Spain, where he hoped to received a hero's welcome. His ship was hijacked, and he spent five years of captivity in North Africa. Finally ransomed, he returned to Spain, where he labored for decades without his longed-for success as a writer or professional. He might even have spent some time in prison. He married a woman nineteen years his junior, and from all accounts the matrimony was less than blissful. His first narrative work, the pastoral romance Galatea, appeared in 1585, to a modest reception. He wrote occasional poetry, and he could not find producers for his full-length plays and dramatic interludes. Cervantes was fifty-eight years old when part one of Don Quixote was published in 1605, and, at last, he enjoyed enormous critical praise and acclaim. He saw the publication of his twelve exemplary novellas in 1613 and eight of his plays and eight interludes--all of which were "unproduced"--in 1615, the year in which part two of Don Quixote was published. Between the two parts, an "unauthorized sequel" appeared, by an author who used the pseudonym of Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. Cervantes was vexed by the competing and ill-spirited tome, and he maligns the book and its author in his own continuation. Cervantes died on April 23, 1616, the same date as William Shakespeare, but according to two different calendars: the Gregorian in the first case and the Julian in the second. Cervantes's final work, his self-proclaimed "prose epic," The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda was published posthumously in 1617.

A unifying element of Cervantes's writings is an emphasis on the writing process itself, which naturally calls attention to reading, as well. The text occupies the middle space between the writer and the reader, the creator and the consumer. Literature is always, to a degree at least, about itself, about the invention and interpretation of art. That topic seemed to be on Cervantes's mind, most notably in Don Quixote, which opens by addressing the "idle reader"--desocupado lector--who will be anything but idle when confronting a consummate master of irony. Tonight we will explore Cervantes's writings through his poetry: poetry of diverse strains, which finds its way into his plays, interludes, novellas, and Don Quixote. Cervantes was a poet in the literal sense and in the Aristotelian sense--a writer of fiction--although Aristotle contrasted the subjectivity of poetry with the objectivity of history, while Cervantes--rather convincingly, in Don Quixote--refuted the distinction. …

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